Les Deux Plateaux: Monument to the french malaise?

Daniel Buren's 'liquorice' sculptures were meant to symbolise a dynamic, thrusting France. Critics argue that their neglect is a metaphor for the country's cultural demise

John Lichfield
Saturday 05 January 2008 01:00

They look, at first, like giant Liquorice Allsorts or the truncated remains of a candy-striped Greek temple. They form a kind of ancient monument to modernity, constructed in 1986 in the midst of the Baroque splendour of the 17th-century Palais Royal in the heart of Paris.

Vastly controversial when they were built, the short, black-and-white columns symbolised, to some, a dynamic, new France thrusting through the surface of the fusty, old French capital. To others, they were a high-intellectual absurdity.

Two decades later, the columns have become popular as a slalom course for skateboarders and a minimalist climbing frame for children. They are beloved of tourists, who love to clamber on to the shorter stumps and have their photographs taken, posing as opera singers or politicians or sportsmen.

But the giant, walk-in sculpture also originally a light show, a sound show and a fountain is no longer popular with the man who created it. Daniel Buren, 69, one of France's most internationally acclaimed modern artists, says he would like his best-known and most-visited achievement to be dismantled. "It is a work of art which has already been 50 per cent destroyed," he said. "It is a victim of vandalism vandalism by the state."

The sculpture is officially called Les Deux Plateaux (The Two Levels). It has a subterranean section, covered by metal grilles, through which water is supposed to flow merrily, illuminated by floodlights, to reflect the columns above. Eight years ago, one of the floodlights came loose. It was shoved back into place with a lump of concrete. All of the other lights fused. They have never been repaired. Seven years ago, the running water packed up for reasons unknown. It has never been restored.

The underground sections of the sculpture have since filled up with rubbish and coins, cast hopefully by tourists into a non-functioning fountain. The columns had also begun to look grey and tatty. They have recently been polished, for only the second time in two decades.

"Would they show only half a work of art in a museum?" Buren asks. "No other fountain in Paris has been left like that, without water. Six months, I could have accepted, but for seven years? Frankly, any pavement in the capital is better maintained."

His fury is compounded by the fact that the Culture Ministry, responsible for the upkeep of his work, has its gilt-encrusted headquarters in the Palais Royal. For seven years, successive culture ministers, and their senior officials, have looked out of their lovely, full-length, french windows on to a half-abandoned public monument and done nothing about it.

If the Culture Ministry can ignore something, literally, under its nose, Buren says, imagine what is happening to modern, state-commissioned artworks elsewhere? "There is widespread negligence towards contemporary art [in France]," he said.

Buren's blast of indignation has embarrassed and angered the French government. The timing could not have been more unfortunate. The government and French press are still angrily gathering arguments to counter an article in Time magazine last month which suggested that the country of Monet and Czanne and Proust had become culturally insignificant in the modern age.

Now the government stands accused of vandalising the work of one of France's few internationally acclaimed artists from the contemporary era. (Buren was the winner of the 2007 Praemium Imperiale, the Japan-sponsored Nobel Prize of three-dimensional art.)

The artist's suggestion that his "Buren columns" in the Palais Royal might be better removed has also rekindled the old political-artistic controversies of two decades ago. The sculpture was one of the grands projets or grands travaux (great public works) commissioned in the 1980s under the left-wing presidency of Franois Mitterrand. The works were intended to represent the coming of a more open-minded, dynamic France, in which modern, state-commissioned oeuvres would rival, and modify, the great achievements of the past.

All of the works were hugely controversial. They were especially detested by right-wing commentators who felt that they represented, somehow, a politically motivated rejection of France's past architectural and political traditions.

Modern structures, from the Eiffel Tower to the Centre Georges Pompidou, have always had to fight for their right to exist in Paris. They have generally triumphed in the end. Most of the grands projets have now been accepted as invaluable additions to the cultural glories of the French capital.

The conversion of the long-abandoned Orsay railway station beside the Seine into the Muse d'Orsay has been a spectacular, popular success. The beautiful, glass pyramid in the main courtyard of the Louvre has transformed the way visitors access the world's largest art museum. The Opera Bastille and the new National Library widely disliked at first have now become established and successful counterpoints to the elegance and uniformity, or sameiness, of much of the capital.

None of these projects generated as much heat, and hatred, as the 260 Buren columns in the Palais Royal.

The site that they occupy, in the southern courtyard of the Palais Royal, was previously a car park. No one had considered it unfitting that Citroëns and Renaults should desecrate the early 17th-century "elegance and unity" of the Palais, a few steps from the Louvre. The idea that a minimalist modern art work should push out the cars provoked an avalanche of graffiti, newspaper articles, questions in parliament, committees against and committees in favour. The columns became a battleground between left and right, but were also a rallying cry for the French far right, partly because Buren is of Jewish origin.

The culture minister of the day, Jack Lang, father of the grands projets, consulted the "superior commission on historic monuments". The commission voted unanimously to reject Buren's columns on the grounds that they were "too modern and highly intellectual".

M. Lang decided to press ahead regardless. The work had not been completed in 1986 when M. Mitterrand lost control of the National Assembly to a centre-right majority and was forced to appoint a centre-right Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. The new right-wing Culture Minister, Franois Leotard, came under intense pressure to scrap the Buren project, President Mitterrand demanded that it should go ahead. He won.

The Palais Royal columns, originally seen as a rude gesture towards traditionalism, became instantly one of the great symbols of "cohabitation": the unprecedented decision of a left-wing president and a right-wing prime minister to work together in one system of government.

Over the years, the columns have become accepted by the public, both resident and visiting. Their once garish whiteness and blackness has faded, pleasantly, to fit in with the creamy-white columns and black shadows of the arcades of the Palais Royal (once the haunt of prostitutes).

M. Buren believes, however, that the old animosity has never quite died. He has been inundated with messages in recent days, some defending his sculpture but many congratulating him on seeing the light and agreeing to get rid of it at last. "In these commentaries, I can feel the far right reawakening," Buren said. "I see again the old anti-Lang slogans, the old anti-Semitic insults."

The neglect of his sculpture is, he says, symbolic of wider neglect of much of France's cultural heritage despite an annual cultural budget of €7.6bn (5.7bn). Partly, the problem is the sheer richness and quantity of France's heritage. Buren is not the only artist to suspect that modern works which age very badly if neglected are treated as a nuisance by a ministry struggling to prop up medieval cathedrals, chateaux and bridges.

The Culture Ministry insists that it has money in its 2008 budget to restore light and running water to the Buren columns. The budget includes €14m for restoration of the Palais Royal, including €3.2m for restoration of Les Deux Plateaux.

Buren says that he has heard all that before, from three previous culture ministers. Budgets were agreed; work was to begin; nothing happened.

"If you think of this work as just columns actually they are polygons there is no problem," he said. "They are the only thing which is faultless. Of the 260 which we installed, only one has been spoilt in 20 years and that was when a service vehicle ran into it. But the columns are just part of a work which is supposed to include luminous areas and channels for running water. The columns are supposed to reflect in the water and the running water clears debris from the channels. Today, they have become dustbins."

Legally, Buren has a right to demand that the columns be dismantled. Under French law, an artist has a "right to respect for the unity of his works". Buren has said that he would prefer to see the columns, lights and channels scrapped rather than left half-abandoned. This seems, however, to have been a clever first volley in a campaign to generate public interest in the plight of his work.

"An artist has moral rights over his works," he said. "That's what I am fighting for. [I will go] to court, if necessary. Demolishing the columns would cost as much as restoring them. That would be by far the most absurd outcome. I hope that it doesn't come to that."

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